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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

23 December 2022

Malcolm Guite owes a debt to David Scott

LIKE many, I mourn the passing of David Scott, but I am immensely thankful that his memory and his poetry still abide. I owe him a personal as well as a literary debt. I met him during my troubled teenage years, when he became the only chaplain at Haberdashers’ to take an interest in and care for the small group of boys cooped up in the great day school’s neglected boarding house.

At the time, I was fiercely atheist, and took the opportunity of my encounters with him to try and trounce his faith. I had become obsessed with Samuel Beckett, and I remember reciting bits of Beckett at him, as though the mere existence of Waiting for Godot was sufficient to finish Christianity for ever.

His response was both unexpected and disarming. “Ah, Malcolm,” he said. “I’m so glad you’ve discovered Beckett, that Desert Father of the High Modernists.” Of course, I didn’t know what a Desert Father was, and had to ask. He put the right books in my hands, and it was a strangely moving experience to read their lives and sayings, as though these ragged figures shared a stage with Estragon and Vladimir.

I came back for more, and David and I became good friends. We stayed in touch after I left school, and he showed me what I most wanted to know: that Christianity was a living faith, and that poetry and priesthood were real vocations. He showed me how one might live both within the poetic tradition and within the two great poems of liturgy and scripture; and yet still be open to all the nuances and complexities, the doubts and perturbations of contemporary life.

We also shared, it turned out, a deep and formative interest, amounting to veneration, in Lancelot Andrewes, and he gave me the beautiful translations he made of Andrewes’s private prayers, which were renewed in David’s deft re-imagining, as contemporary poems.

Now I open again the pages of the worn copy of Playing for England, which he inscribed for me so many years ago; and poem after poem speaks to me in his gentle searching voice. As I vest for a service, his little poem about the surplice comes back to me. I hear him say:


For me it is my only finery, by law
decent and comely; a vestry
   friend
put on often in dread; given away
to old deft fingers to mend.


And, on funeral days, I remember his glimpse of the surplice


chucked on the back seat of the
  car
with the purple stole and the
  shopping.


In some ways, his poetry has been like that for me: both a beautiful, time-honoured clothing, and also a companion in the midst of the everyday. What he says of the surplice in the last lines of that poem also stands for and summons the two traditions, spiritual and poetic, that his life and poetry have helped me to inhabit:


We have put these garments on
   for centuries.
They persist. We wither and
   crease inside them.


Read an obituary of the Revd David Scott here

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